Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Week 7: "Atypical Patrons"

As a new library student, I just want to say that I am so glad the topic of the library's homeless was the main focus this week. It's a big issue that I'd hoped would be addressed in library school. After working in an academic library for five years and watching my higher-ups deal with homeless/troubled patrons, I wanted to learn more about what my role and responsibility is as a librarian to work with this community. It's a confusing grey area.

Several of the articles, especially Cronin, re-iterated the fact that librarians are not trained social workers. After reading through the articles and feeling pretty hopeless that there were few definitive answers, I watched the San Francisco Public Library video and instantly felt cheered. Having an on-site social worker is a fabulous idea for such a large public institution. The worker, Lia, says she has helped over 250 people and she has noticeably reduced the numbers of problematic patrons in the stacks (although maybe they know she's coming and go elsewhere). Really, I think her job is very courageous on her part (as a smaller woman who hates disrupting people, I would feel rather shy about approaching the homeless all day long) and immensely helpful to the library. San Francisco Public Library came up with a great solution to this issue.

Reading all of these articles made me question my ethical stance when it comes to the homeless. I was feeling extremely sympathetic towards this misunderstood group of people. And then, I read Cronin's article, which was so in-your-face about his beliefs: libraries are not shelters, and claimed that libraries are letting "a disruptive minority effectively prevent the majority of bona fide library patrons from exercising their rights" (Cronin). That shook me. On one hand, libraries exist to provide materials to everyone, and many people have climbed upward in their lives with the aid of the library: providing GED, ESL, computer access, and in some cases, even job help. Just because the homeless have all their belongings with them or smell funky doesn't mean they don't deserve access to these materials. On the other hand, all patrons deserve to feel comfortable at their libraries, and people who are taking advantage of the library's shelter to bathe, do drugs, watch porn, or other disruptive activities violate their rights. Calling the police every time someone complains is costly to taxpayers and a pain to staff, and ignoring the problem makes patrons uncomfortable visting the library, which lowers circulation stats. So solutions like having an on-site social worker, like San Francisco, make me really happy. I just wish there were more viable options for smaller libraries.

Or maybe the mentally ill in this country should have better access to help and funding. But that's a different issue for a different day.


  1. "And ignoring the problem makes patrons uncomfortable visiting the library, which lowers circulation stats."

    Not just circ stats ... let me add that the "regular" patrons are the ones who financially support the library through their taxes, etc. It can be a slippery slope to navigate.

  2. "Or maybe the mentally ill in this country should have better access to help and funding. But that's a different issue for a different day."

    Actually, to my mind that is a big part of the central issue here. I can understand Cronin's frustrations, but I also can't help but think he's just setting a straw man. No one is seriously going to come to defense of public masturbators, but that's not really his point.

    If we accept the notion that libraries are community institutions that exist to serve all in the community (not just the "bona fide" patrons), we should also be willing to work toward bettering the overall health of the community as a means of improving the experience within the library. Librarians have a unique perspective from within their communities to act as advocates for things like mental health reforms, housing reforms, things that will make the entire community better.

  3. Crystal -- I felt more hopefully too upon viewing the video after reading the articles. Yet, I thought of the public libraries here in Madison and tried to brainstorm some potential solutions to help those individuals that are in need. We couldn't possibly afford to take on a full time social worker, but what if we asked for volunteers from the social work community (who are not homeless outreach volunteers, but actual social workers!). Or perhaps, there is a librarian who feels comfortable reaching out to these individuals with helpful resources from the community. I would love the opportunity to reach out to patrons and ask if they were okay, finding everything, and if I found out they were in need of resources because they were homeless, providing them with information. Isn't that our job after all -- providing resources? If we are a little more outgoing and personal, perhaps we can also help in this area. It's clear that our society needs to respond to homelessness, people shouldn't have to bathe in a public library, there should be other areas in the community providing help to this demographic.